At a virtual press conference for Disney’s ‘Raya and the Last Dragon’, the cast and makers chat about the impact the project will have on young Southeast Asians and on popular culture
In 2018, when Southeast Asia’s first Disney film since Mulan was announced as ‘Dragon Empire’, social media expressed equal measures of speculation and enthusiasm. However, during the 2019 D23 Expo by Disney, Raya and the Last Dragon was officially announced, and Sutheast Asia went into even more of a frenzy when Awkwafina and Kelly Marie Tran were announced as lead actors.
With the film finally set to release on March 5 in theatres, the excitement around the virtual press conference is palpable. On behalf of the film’s crew are co-directors Carlos López Estrada and Don Hall, writers Qui Nguyen and Adele Lim, and producer Osnat Shurer. They were joined by actors Kelly (Raya), Awkwafina (Sisu), Daniel Dae Kim (Chief Benja), Thalia Tran (Little Noi) and Izaac Wang (Boun).
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When Awkwafina heard that Kelly was set to play Raya, and that Crazy Rich Asians screenwriter Adele Lim was also on board, she knew that it would be a pretty special project. She adds, “In the process, you see little sketches here and there – not a lot of the stuff. I thought it was a live-action because the water and the rain were insane; visually it’s so stunning.”
Kelly chimes in, revering the way the film will be “breaking a barrier, “I grew up at least with the sort of narrow perception of what a hero looks like or what a hero spoke like, and to be part of something that’s changing that feels powerful.”
Doing it for the kids
Taking on a leadership role as Chief Benja in his community, Kim elaborates on inclusivity for a new generation of audiences, “For children in particular, the universe that Disney creates is one that many of them see as a totality of the world while they’re children. When you think of Disney movies, they helped define our childhood; now Southeast Asians – and Asians in general – will now be a part of those kids’ experiences. It does huge things for issues of representation and role-modelling and the future, it now becomes inclusive of that group.”
Looking forward to how popular culture will be impacted by Raya and the Last Dragon, Nguyen talks about the representation in form of clothing, festivals and even architecture, stating, “that nuance is kind of special.” He recalls asking his child about his favourite Asian hero and there being no response to this. But Raya and the Last Dragon could change this, he says. “In this moment in time, they will always have Raya, Sisu, Namaari (played by Gemma Chan), Boun, Noi, Tong (played by Benedict Wong), and Benja, who will always be part of their self-esteem fabric that will shape them forever.”
Young actor Thalia Tran is thrilled to be part of this new generation of “characters who look just like us.” Set to play Noi, a toddler with a bit of a trickster in her, she is fond of the character’s resemblance to her little sister mainly because of “her good heart.” She continues, “We can see our faces reflected on the screens and hear our voices reflected on the screens and our stories – and know that they matter. To have people who are willing to spend time to create this art around our cultures is to know that we don’t have to be ashamed of them; we don’t have to hide that part of ourselves that we don’t have to just conform to what is considered the typical idea of a princess or what is considered the idea of a hero. We can just be true to ourselves and still fit that category.” Another budding star in the film is Izaac Wang. He plays Boun, a street-savvy entrepreneur who is “energetic but also an adult in a kid’s body… but still a kid-at-heart.” With this in mind, Wang had a great time conjuring up Boun’s “surfer dude” voice.
But the voice-acting journey was not always smooth sailing for everyone. Given much of the recording happened during the pandemic, the actors had to improvise and create recording studios at home. While he was happy to ‘act’ while in his homely shorts and T-shirt, he realised being his “own construction crew and tech team” was not as easy as it ended up being. “There was a learning curve [laughs] because one of the first sessions I ever did from home was going really well. I was like ‘this recording at home stuff is kind of fun.’ 30 minutes later, I realised that everything I just recorded had been lost and I didn’t set things properly. Don and Carlos, and Osnat will tell you that was the best stuff I did.”
At this point, the directors and producer assure that Kim was able to replicate that. Co-director Estrada recounts, “Don, you’re one of the most optimistic people I’ve met, but that day when we heard that we lost Daniel’s recording, I remember your face. I’ve never seen you so hopeless. It was the best recording session, Daniel; it was the most important Benja scenes, and Daniel just poured his heart into these lines!”
Tapping into sub-cultures, respectfully
The actors and the creators agree that primary research for this film had to be very specifically done – in the form of pre-production trips to the different countries to connect with the cultures. “This was the theme of the film,” says Academy Award-nominated Shurer, who understands Southeast Asia itself is a diverse sub-continent and Disney did not want to generalise. “Just choosing where to go had a lot to do with the stories we wanted to tell, and with amazing people we met who hosted us in different places. We were lucky to go to quite a few places and then to keep those relationships going as we went into the film.”
She continues that part of what struck the film’s team so much, and why they wanted to ground the film in Southeast Asia “was the incredible diversity that we encountered. Yet there’s this working together and this ability to set aside the differences within each country and the whole region and work together for the greater good.” Estrada agrees, recalling how production wanted to recreate the beauty of the sunsets of the Mekong as well as the sounds of the cicadas which they wanted to include at the beginning of the film.